Exclusive – Syrian rebels tell U.S. they won’t leave Aleppo

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Rebel fighters stand near a damaged bus used as a barricade in the rebel-held besieged Bab al-Hadid neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria December 2, 2016. The graffiti on the bus reads in Arabic: ‘Aleppo is tired mother…19/10/2016 and we still want freedom.’ REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

Syrian rebel groups have told the United States they will not leave Aleppo after Moscow called for talks with Washington over a full withdrawal of rebel fighters from the city’s besieged eastern districts, a rebel official said on Sunday.

Speaking to Reuters from Turkey, senior rebel official Zakaria Malahifji said the message was delivered to U.S. officials in contacts on Saturday following the statement from Russia, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s most powerful ally.

"Our response to the Americans was as follows: we cannot leave our city, our homes, to the mercenary militias that the regime has mobilised in Aleppo," said Malahifji, the head of the political office of an Aleppo rebel group.

The U.S. officials had asked the rebels "do you want to leave, (or) do you want to be steadfast", Malahifji said. "They listened to the response and did not comment," he said.

The rebels called on the "friends of the Syrian people" to stand by them and for the urgent delivery of food and medicine to eastern Aleppo and for the wounded to be evacuated, he said.

The Russian-backed Syrian army has captured large areas of eastern Aleppo from rebels in the latest phase of its campaign to take back all of Aleppo. The Syrian government has also been supported by Shi’ite militias from countries including Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan.

"We cannot leave our homes to Afghanis, to Iraqis, and so on," Malahifji said. "(The U.S. officials) were in contact with me and with some of the military and political leaders in Aleppo. We agreed on this answer," he said.

The United States has yet to comment on the proposal made by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Saturday for talks on the withdrawal of all rebel fighters "without exclusion" from Aleppo.

(Reporting by Tom Perry; Editing by Janet Lawrence)